When Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to Paris in December, posters for Manchester By The Sea were all over the Metro, and I confess they got me intrigued. I didn’t know Manchester by the Sea was a real place, in Massachusetts (population 5,136 in the 2010 census). I thought maybe it might be about some tough Northerners relocating to a beach environment to escape the stresses and strains of the gritty urban cityscape. In Australia, I expect they think it means a coastal retail outlet where they sell sheets. Both wrong.
The late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, when in an adventurous mood, once did a tour of “New England in the Fall”. This included a visit to Boston, which she enjoyed, but summed it up with a comment that I’ve never forgotten, that it’s so miserable there in winter that they have a huge spike in the number of suicides. I always thought that must be typical maternal exaggeration, but now I’ve seen the film of Manchester by the Sea (30 miles from Boston) I completely get it. Even though it’s won many accolades, gained critical acclaim and been a box office success, it’s simply one of the most miserable films I’ve ever seen.
It’s the story of Lee, struggling to cope with the horror of having caused a house fire that killed his three children; Randi, his wife, and/or ex-wife, who blames him and also has to come to terms with how to face the future; and 16-year-old Patrick, his nephew, who has just lost his father, and faces the dubious prospect of having Uncle Lee as his guardian. If you want to see how they interact and how they cope with their various situations, you’ll have to watch the film. But, a word of warning: there is precious little light and shade. It’s all shade. I gave one small chuckle. Once. Misery is piled on top of moroseness, which is on top of suffering, on top of despair.
Of course I understand why Lee would be so unhappy. His life is ruined, he cares for nothing any more, he exists, only because a suicide attempt failed. And if this film set out to portray the association of three unhappy lives who are consistently unable to put their unhappiness behind them, then it’s extremely successful. But that’s almost an academic exercise. It doesn’t reward the viewer with anything other than a sense of mission accomplished, or misery for misery’s sake. In fact, when Lee’s dead children come back at the end as a mental reaction to his leaving a frying pan on the hob, I wondered if there was any cliché to which it wouldn’t stoop.
Many of the film’s scenes are in flashback, and I wasn’t 100% certain who all the characters were and why they were facing their predicament until a good hour into the film. As a result, I interpreted (wrongly I think) the characterisation of Lee as not so much someone who has had all the emotion battered out of them, but as someone with autism. Casey Affleck superbly conveys that inability to connect, to interpret something figuratively, to see things from another point of view, to solve issues without aggression. But I don’t think he is meant to be autistic, I think it’s a coincidence. That’s just Mr Affleck’s way of portraying someone who’s an empty shell.
The acting is all excellent, but none of the characters is particularly likeable – well maybe C J Wilson’s George, but he’s very peripheral. I felt sorry for the characters but I never emotionally engaged with them. I was very nearly bored by the film – but not quite; I think I kept hanging on for something nice to happen to any of these people. It didn’t.
It’s at least 30 minutes too long – I have to fight the cynic in me who thinks it’s about two and a quarter hours too long. Mrs C hated it much more than me, I should add – I remember her using the words mawkish, claptrap and self-indulgent. When it was over, the packed house at the Errol Flynn was deathly quiet – I think I heard one man just say “oh.” On the way out I overheard two ladies comparing at which point in the film they fell asleep. A perfect example of Macbeth’s tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I’ve read the reviews praising it to the hilt – and I just don’t get it. For me, this is an elegant, well-produced, attractive void.